(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that the International Boundary and Water Commission are concerned and working on the situation.)
PALMVIEW, Texas (Border Report) — As hurricane season approaches, officials in deep South Texas are increasingly worried about breaches in the levee system that were created to facilitate border-wall construction, which the Biden administration has since halted.
There are at least four breaches in the levee system that protects this low-lying area in Hidalgo County from flooding, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said on Wednesday morning, standing at the base of a mammoth break in the 25-foot-tall dirt levee.
The levee was built under the 2006 Safe Fence Act to protect this delta region from Rio Grande flooding. However, the dirt levee also had been the staging ground for former President Donald Trump’s border wall, and as construction amped up during his presidency, modifications and cuts to the wall, such as this, were implemented.
But when President Joe Biden took over on Jan. 21, he put an immediate all-stop to border wall construction, and now areas, such as this one, are left vulnerable, Cortez said.
“They just walked away from here,” Cortez said. “We hope they pay attention. This is a critical and dangerous situation for us.”
This particular breach is literally large enough to drive a truck through, and that’s what this “cut” was used for during construction of the border wall.
Just a mile to the east, there is another massive break that allowed crews to get heavy equipment and 16-wheelers in and out of the area.
Local officials have toured the region via helicopter and say these four breaks pose a significant threat to public health as the June 1 start of hurricane season quickly approaches.
Photos above show the border wall construction area a mile to the east where part of the wall has been built on the earthen levee. (Border Report photos/Sandra Sanchez)
This delta region is known for flooding, and the nearby small towns of Palmview and Peñitas and Mission could be affected if heavy rains were to come and the international river rose, causing water to breach the earthen levee that is all that stands between residents and the Rio Grande.
“This would clearly impact us,” said Hidalgo County Commissioner Everardo “Ever” Villarreal, whose district includes this low-lying rural area. “Unfortunately, the recent construction in the area has left our levee system in a vulnerable state.”
But at this point, local officials are at a loss over who would be responsible to make repairs. They say their budget is stretched thin — especially with an ongoing travel ban and heavy expenses from extraordinarily high cases of coronavirus in this county.
In 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, announced the construction of approximately 13 miles of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) Levee Wall System Project. On Oct. 31, 2018, USACE awarded a contract to SLSCO Ltd for $145 million to construct approximately six miles of the levee wall system.
Hidalgo County, Texas, officials held a news conference on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in a remote area south of Palmview, Texas, where there is a massive break, in an earthen levee designed to protect from flooding of the Rio Grande. Hidalgo County Commissioner Everardo “Ever” Villarreal, far right, said he is worried for his constituents. (Border Report Photos/Sandra Sanchez)
County officials have reached out to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for construction of the border wall, as well as the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission, the international organization that monitors the Rio Grande and owns the earthen levees. They also have reached out to officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management.
USIBWC Public Affairs Officer Lori Kuczmanski wrote in an emailed statement to Border Report they are aware of the situation and are concerned.
“The U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) is very concerned about the existing levee gaps in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The USIBWC understands the critical nature of the situation and has reiterated to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection the immediate importance of providing flood protection to the local community prior to hurricane season which begins June 1,” Kuczmanski wrote. “Pending the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Custom and Border Protection’s direction to being able to return to work, USIBWC has advised the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S Custom and Border Protection to review and update their emergency flood protection plan in addition to the planning of repairing the affected levees.”
USIBWC is very concerned about the existing levee gaps in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The USIBWC understands the critical nature of the situation.”USIBWC Public Affairs Officer Lori Kuczmanski
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents this area, said he has also reached out to the Biden administration, saying “dirt levees in Hidalgo County have been left severely compromised.”
“This poses a dangerous risk to residents in Hidalgo County and its surrounding areas, especially as hurricane season approaches and the threat of flooding intensifies,” said Cuellar, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee.
In a statement, he said he is asking Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to work with the IBWC “to take immediate action to repair the damaged levee sections and restore the Rio Grande Flood Control System.”
Border Report has reached out to DHS officials for comment. This story will be updated if additional information is received.
This isn’t the first time there have been concerns regarding the levee system related to border wall construction. But the sudden work stoppage has complicated the situation as most contractors were given just 48 hours to wrap up and tidy up their construction zones, most of which still have heavy equipment and border wall panels lying around.
If water was to breach the levee, Palmview Mayor Ricardo Villarreal said “we might not be able to recover.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.